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Published: February 18th 2009
If you read down my blog, you would have seen that I attended a Spanish language school in Cuenca Ecuador last year (2008). I continued my lessons this year at the Otavalo Spanish Institute (OSI) in, well, Otavalo. Choosing the school was not done with much investigation on my part, my goal was to find a school close to Ibarra where I wanted to fly gliders (see my “Gliding in Ecuador” blogs). My internet search did not find any schools in Ibarra, so I settled on Otavalo, which is about 15 kilometers down the road. I should add that there are schools in Ibarra, it is just that they don't have an internet presence (driving around Ibarra, I saw one with an interesting name “Center Canadiense de Idiomas”). My internet search for Otavalo came up with the OSI.
The guy that runs the OSI, Washington Villamarin, answered my email promptly and answered my questions. Once I decided to go ahead, he asked for, and I wired a deposit to the school's bank account for about the first two weeks. He arranged for someone to pick me up at the airport in Quito and deliver me to a hotel for an
overnight stay before he picked me up the next morning, took me to Otavalo, and dropped me off at my host family. I arrived in Quito late on a Thursday night, so I had a weekend to kill before my classes started on Monday.
On Monday, I was introduced to my first instructor, Joffre. He is, I'm guessing, late 20's. He had two university degrees, one in teaching as a science, and the other in teaching English as a second language. He reviewed my books from last year, and then talked with me to determine my proficiency in Spanish before moving forward with the lessons. The OSI is certainly less organized than the school I attended in Cuenca, but it is also a little less expensive. The cheaper rate translates into fewer resources for students, and less of a planned approach to teaching. Now, that said, I must add that I felt that the lack of structure was also a plus. Last year, when I studied with the Escuela Simon Bolivar in Cuenca, I felt that despite the one-on-one instruction, they were not able to effectively tailor the lessons to the my needs. I recall asking the teacher to
divert from the textbook for a few days to help me solidify things that I had learned thus far. The teacher seemed confused and didn't quite know what to do, he ran over a few things for half an hour, then pushed on to the next page of the student manual.
The lack of structure at the OSI was a plus in many ways because when I asked the teacher to spend more time on something, he was quite willing and able to accommodate me. There was no book to dictate what he should be doing with me next. I did find it frustrating that everything had to be written down manually due to the lack of handouts or a workbook, or even a photocopier in the school. Joffre would write his lessons on the whiteboard, and I would copy them down. He would patiently wait for me to finish copying before erasing the board and moving on to the next topics.
At the end of the first week, Washington told me that Joffre was not available for a couple of weeks during my stay due to other commitments, and that I had a choice on another instructor
These babies can fly at 260 kph!
for the rest of my stay, or just for the missing weeks. The other instructor, Juan (tocayo), I had met during our breaks. He seemed like a good guy, so I chose to go with him for the remainder of my stay.
Juan turned out to be an excellent teacher, and I would highly recommend him. He has a degree in journalism, and has been teaching for 8 years. He has a good sense of humour, is very patient, and recognized when I was struggling with something and automatically spent more time on the topic, changing his approach to teaching when necessary to give me a better understanding. Every morning first thing, he would drill me on areas I had been having trouble with previously. His approach is very much what I would expect from a one-on-one teaching situation.
The room that Juan used had a whiteboard, but he didn't use it. He would arrive every day with a supply of blank sheets that he would write the day's lessons on for me, and I would take them with me for future reference. Sometimes I would take Juan's books home at night to copy the exercises he assigned
for homework. I really felt that the lessons were tailored for me this way.
The school was not busy at all - there were two students there during my first week, a fellow from Seattle and myself. I didn't see more than three students, myself included, during my 6 week stay. Apparently their busy time is May through September when the North American universities are on their summer break.
I was billeted with a family in a residential area just north of the downtown area, about a 15 minute walk from the school. My goal in doing this was the same as last year - to be immersed in Spanish. The family consisted of a mother and father in the late 50's or early 60's in the main house, and a son, daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren (girl 10, boy 18 months) in an adjoining house. They spent most of their time in the main house, and had all their meals together. Being an old guy (54), empty-nester, I found the ambient noise level quite high with the extended family around all the time. I found the neighbourhood noisy as well, with a lot of dogs
Condor in the wild
What is impressive to me was that I saw a wild one, given that there are apparently only 70 of them in Ecuador.
barking all the time, including the ferocious one next door that seemed to bark a lot at night when I would rather be sleeping. As much as I liked the family (the kids were precious and I enjoyed playing with them), I only lasted 4 weeks before I bailed and moved into a hotel. After one particular noisy day when I had a headache, I asked myself if the price of my stay (noise) was delivering the benefits I wanted in terms of my Spanish skills, and my need for some quiet won.
I'm a pretty tolerant guy, and don't sweat details too much, so I wasn't too picky about specifying what I wanted in a home stay before I arrived. Some things that you might want to ask about when looking for a home stay are things like the make-up of the family, whether you are able to tolerate young children around all the time, whether anyone in the family smokes (none did in my case), whether there are pets, do the neighbours have noisy dogs, or anything else you can think of that might get on your nerves after an extended stay. Something else might be if
Lago San Pablo
Close to Otavalo
the family are prepared to help you with your Spanish. As a busy family with young children, they didn't really appear to have much time to just sit down and talk with me. I'm not particularly gregarious, and had I been a bit more outgoing, I probably would have been more successful with practice with them.
Otavalo - Life Downtown
After class one day last week, I spent the afternoon walking around downtown Otavalo checking out hotels. I used my "Rough Guide" tourist book as a starting place. My original goal was to find a hotel with internet, but quickly decided that this was going to be impossible. The only hotel I found with a wireless network wanted $35 a day for a room plus another $5 per day for the internet. In Ecuador terms, this is very expensive. I also wanted a hotel that was quiet. I found a place on the outer fringes of downtown (Hotel "Santa Fe") that looked very nice. Modern, lots of nice woodwork, a small restaurant on the main floor. I asked the woman at the desk to show me the rooms. The first room she showed me was a small inside
room with a skylight but no windows. I was not too impressed. Sensing this, she showed me a room at the back of the hotel. It was a bigger room, had a large window with a view looking east towards the mountains, lots of light, and it was away from the street so it should be much quieter. I decided on the spot that it was perfect. We walked back downstairs to the desk and I asked her how much, she said $13! I told the woman that I would take it. I finished making a reservation and told her I would be back the next day in the afternoon with my suitcase.
I bought a "Rough Guide" book on Ecuador a year ago before I came here the first time, and found it was way out-of-date. I had circled 5 hotels listed in the guide to look at and four of them didn't exist as described, all of them except one had name changes which made it fun when walking the streets looking for a sign. Here, the hotels blend in with all the other buildings, they are usually above street level with other businesses below. Anyway, the
place I chose had a comfortable feel to it and I was able to understand the woman at the desk which built my confidence. I should add that the Rough Guide has been invaluable to me in learning about the country, history, and for scouting out what to see. As with anything prone to change, by the time it gets into print it could be outdated.
The hotel Santa Fe (it refers to itself as both a hotel and hostel) is about a block off of the main town square (Parque Central), which all of these Spanish-influenced towns have. It is a bit of a park, a city block square. There are a couple of pictures of it in my first blog from Otavalo; it is where I encountered that indigenous woman and bought the scarves. I was thinking when I chose my hotel that it is a place I can go and sit and read, watch the world go by, and enjoy the outside a bit. I kind-of hope to run into that woman again as I would like to buy some more scarves as gifts for my kids and some of their friends. If not, there are
hundreds of other vendors that would be happy to sell me scarves... They are small and won't take up much room in my suitcase. The hotel location is closer to my school than my previous home, about 6 blocks, and it is about 4 blocks from my favourite internet place. I have been having my laundry done at a place downtown, and it is handy as well. So, overall, I am optimistic about things. At his point I only have three weeks left in Otavalo anyway.
A note to my fellow motorcycle travellers: The Hotel Santa Fe has secure parking in an interior courtyard, accessed by a gated driveway from the street. You can park your bike and easily walk to all the downtown attractions including the famous Otavalo market. One question often asked about hotels down here is if they have consistent hot water for showers, and this has never been a problem here for me.
I did not fly the weekend after I moved downtown. I exchanged text messages with Remy and the winch operators were not available that weekend. I didn't mind, it gave me a chance to get settled into my new place, and explore the territory.
I spent most of the day Saturday wandering around the world famous Otavalo Market and doing some shopping. I bought some things to bring home as gifts, and I bought some fruit, water, and munchies for my room. I realized that on the Saturday market day in Otavalo, there is actually some order to how the vendors are organized as they fill up the downtown streets with their booths. The first Saturday I was here I was a little overwhelmed to notice. There are specific areas for shoes, clothes, meat, vegetables, house and kitchen wares, weaving, knitting, arts and crafts, and jewelery. I spent Saturday morning just walking around getting the organization figured out, then after almuerzo, I went back to the specific areas I was interested in to make some purchases.
Sunday I sat in the Parque Central and watched a band play music for over an hour. I gather that Sunday morning music in the part is a regular occurrence.
I discovered that the following week was a festival of indigenous culture and music (Aguazero)
and that bands were playing every night at a bandstand set up downtown by the market. I started heading over to the market in the evenings to take in the music which was refered to as “musica andino”. Every night they usually had about 5 bands play, each would come on and do about 3 or 4 songs. The bands represented many local communities.
Last week I visited a bird rescue centre and was thrilled to see they had some condors, and even had a bigger thrill later to see a wild condor soaring above me in ridge lift. I also saw a number of raptors fly with handlers. It was interesting to watch them grap meat mid-flight thrown up in the air for them.
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